On Monday, Israel took delivery of its first two F-35I “Adir” multi-purpose fighters. Barring any unexpected cost overruns, Israel is slated to take delivery of a further 48 of these machines, reckoned to be the most advanced in the world. The acquisition will add to Israel’s already formidable fleet of F-16I, F-15I and F-15C fighter bombers.
The following day, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, paid an official state visit to Azerbaijan to meet with his counterpart, President Ilham Aliyev, to sign various trade agreements and solidify understandings. Despite the fact that Azerbaijan is predominantly Shia, the Muslim nation maintains very good relations with Israel.
The two events are seemingly mutually exclusive but must be viewed within a wider geo-political context involving the Islamic Republic of Iran, its militarized nuclear program and the JCPOA, more commonly referred to as the Iran Deal.
In any strike against Iran, the F-35, with its stealth capabilities, advanced avionics and large payload, will be the tip of the Israeli spear. These aircraft along with F-15 and F-16 fighter jets will be at the forefront of any operation targeting Iran’s nuclear facilities.
Israel also has an undisclosed number of Jericho III intercontinental ballistic missiles that can accurately deliver a payload of 1,000 kilograms of high explosives over a distance of 6,000 kilometers – well within range of every square inch of the Islamic Republic. The Jericho can also be fitted with an unconventional warhead. It is silo-based but there have been reports that Israel possesses a mobile tracked or wheeled version as well.
There will be a role for Israeli Navy as well. Its recent acquisition of the INS Rahav, its fifth submarine, will significantly enhance Israel’s offensive and defensive capabilities. The craft can accurately deliver the Israeli version of the American Tomhawk cruise missile called the Popeye Turbo, and do so virtually undetected. The Popeye Turbo can also be equipped with an unconventional warhead. Israel’s advanced submarine platforms will also be tasked with carrying out covert operations.
But Iran is large and distant. Its nuclear facilities are well protected, fortified and scattered about the country. Israel will need to covertly partner with other nations bordering Iran to ensure maximum success.
Enter Azerbaijan, a relatively small nation that shares a border with its much larger neighbor, Iran. As a Muslim nation and a member of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, Azerbaijan has paid lip service to anti-Israeli Muslim political initiatives. But despite this, Israel and Azerbaijan maintain excellent, if somewhat discreet relations. That is so because both nations share mutual concerns and strategic interests and both view Iran warily.
President Aliyev once described Azeri-Israel relations as being like an iceberg, nine-tenths of it is below the surface. That analogy is quite accurate but with Netanyahu’s public visit, it seems as though Azerbaijan is no longer concerned about keeping its ties with the Jewish State secretive.
During Netanyahu’s visit, Aliyev spoke of the deepening defense ties between the two nations and noted that “so far the contracts between Azerbaijani and Israeli companies with respect to purchasing of defense equipment is close to 5 billion dollars.” He added that he was “very satisfied with the level of this cooperation [between Israel and Azerbaijan].” Israel in turn derives much of its energy requirements from Baku.
Naturally, Netanyahu’s visit irked the Iranians who were quick to issue hysterical public denunciations of it. The Iranians have good reason to worry. An Israeli military presence in the Caucasus represents a game changer and heavily tilts the military balance in Israel’s favor. Forward operating bases would naturally close the vast distances separating the two nations and would further enable Israel to circumvent flyovers and aerial refueling over hostile enemy airspaces while en route to targets in Iran. Israel would also be able to carry out logistical, rescue and covert operations with greater ease.
In 2012, it was reported that Israel was seriously considering carrying out a preventative strike against Iran and had been covertly working with Azeri officials to further that goal. But in what can only be described as an act of supreme perfidy, the Obama administration leaked damaging information that inexplicably sought to expose and sabotage the burgeoning strategic alliance between Israel and Azerbaijan.
The administration’s reasons for doing so remain a mystery. Perhaps it was an attempt to derail Israel’s attack plans or perhaps, as some have suggested, it was an act of pure malevolence. Either way, the betrayal harmed Israel’s covert efforts and security interests.
Four years later, there’s a new sheriff in town, one who has openly expressed disdain for the JCPOA and one who, unlike Obama, has promised to hold Iran accountable to its international commitments. When Netanyahu meets Trump, it’s a sure bet that Iran will be at the top of the agenda and the two realist leaders see eye-to-eye on the nature of the Iranian menace and the pitfalls of the JCPOA. The military option, all but sidelined by Obama, is now very much alive and the mullahs should be afraid, very afraid.